I was particularly disappointed to see this critique of SlutWalk in the Australian context – hi Crikey post and comments! – because you’d think we’d have a little bit of sensitivity to the distinction between light and white in this country. Look, I’m pissed off on my own behalf, don’t get me wrong – I work far too hard on anti-racism and to be acknowledged as existing to be aligned with white people by some casual and ignorant observer – but I’m particularly appalled for another reason entirely. To conflate lightness and whiteness is to shit all over one of Australia’s primary narratives of racism, the treatment of Indigenous Australians.
Limiting my discussion to Aboriginal identities in particular just for now, here’s the thing. There are lots of Aboriginal people who have light colouring and other physical characteristics presently primarily associated with white people. For a fuller discussion, see Racial Identity Cannot be Determined by Casual Bystanders, but, for now: in order to be accepted as Aboriginal, a person must have some ancestry in a particular nation, be accepted by their nation as such, and identify with that nation’s culture and community. It’s not about phenotype at all. There are many Aboriginal people who have white ancestry, particularly those from nations to the south. To say that people who are light are white is to say that Aboriginal ideas about the nature of Aboriginality do not matter. It is to ascribe essential, biologically-based racial characteristics to groups of extremely marginalised people, which is basically how racism works.
(Before I begin this paragraph, I want to note that it discusses some of the horrors visited upon mixed race Indigenous Australians, so please be aware.) I don’t get how glancing at a group of people and pronouncing their racial identity for them is anti-racist or at all basically decent. I really don’t get it in a country in which Indigenous people with the “wrong” phenotype are routinely told that they are fakes, that they’re lazy and just trying to scam the government, that they aren’t like the proper black people. I don’t understand how that seems like a good idea in your head to think that, yeah, all racism is bad, but let’s still do this thing where we play Guess the Race based on “essential” racial characteristics. It actually blows my mind in a country with this context. Where it was regarded as proper and kind to breed the Indigeneity out of Indigenous people, to get them white. Where we have the Stolen Generations. Where people were stolen from their families and put to work and had their wages withheld and their history, people, country, identity taken away, because they had some white genes. I don’t know how anyone stomachs such flippancy with a history like that.
Look, I think all non-Indigenous people living here have a responsibility to acknowledge the original peoples, how we’re benefiting off their oppression, and their existence. Positioning everyone as white because that’s what you expect to encounter is just a terrible thing to do, both because it’s plain sloppy and because you’re riding over the victims of an overwhelming amount of racism. It’s being racist, pure and simple. And hey, guess what, Indigenous women are far more likely than non-Indigenous women to be subject to sexual assault. I reckon it’s pretty likely that a few will be turning up to SlutWalk and similar, don’t you?
Look, if you’re labelling swathes of people white, you’re going to be right a lot of the time, simply by virtue of that (as I pointed out in the last post, misconstrued) ~90% statistic. But how can you bear to risk being wrong? Holding up assumptions about groups or images of individuals, white or no, as examples of systemic dominance of white people, is so far out of line it’s almost beyond believing. People can have so-called white features because they are of mixed heritage, through genetic variation, or a combination of these; white features are not inherently white, they are constructed as such.
If you have to use biological essentialism to make an argument against racism, which is based on biological essentialism, then you are doing anti-racism wrong.